Orpheus and Eurydice
A Myth Rewritten and Relived
Part Two: The Beauty of Goodbye
Part Three: The Flight of the Black Swan
Part One: The Return of Eurydice
For Emma who inspired it
and who couldn't care less
Orpheus the shaman defied the powers of the Underworld to find his woman Eurydice and return her to life, but when he looked back to see if she was following him out of the realm of the dead, he lost her forever.
But what if the story ended in a different way...?
In Greek myth, Eurydice was a lovely oak-tree nymph, a slender girl of striking erotic charm, but poised and elusive in the way nymphs can be. She caught the eye of Orpheus, a poet, shaman, and musician whose music, played on the lyre, could make nature do marvelous things. Rocks moved, moss crawled along the ground, trees trembled in their roots, ferocious animals fell down calm and enchanted, when Orpheus played and sang.
Apart from his shamanic talents, Orpheus was accomplished in the erotic arts. He traveled constantly with an entourage of wanton, sex-crazed witches called maenads who danced orgies in wild places, tearing live animals apart and divining with snakes. The Thracean maenads were the only women in ancient Greece who wore tattoos, marks of prowess usually preserved for male warriors. These lascivious witches offered Orpheus all manner of erotic pleasures without restriction, and made on claims on him.
Orpheus lacked nothing from the opposite sex, it seemed. Sexual delight did not attach him to a particular woman. In bouts of erotic delirium with the maenads, he attained the very pleasure of the gods, carnal and divine at once. But being a mortal man, he was susceptible to the need for affection of a more intimate kind. When he saw Eurydice, he felt for the first time the captivating power of mortal love. He, the enchanter, was enchanted by her sexual innocence. Their delight was mutual, and love erupted vivaciously from their pleasure.
In no time at all, Orpheus fixed all his desire on Eurydice. He wanted her and her alone. Feeling that he was the most fortunate man in the world, he gave up his orgiastic ways and turned away from the maenads. For the first time in his entire life, he longed to be a one-woman man. He wanted to share the rest of his life exclusively with Eurydice, and asked her if she felt the same way. She said that his wish was also hers, and consented with all her heart to be his supreme love.
But then something befell Eurydice, an event overtook her before she had time to live our her heart's desire with Orpheus.
The stories vary on what happened next. Some say that a fading paternal god called Aristaeus, adequately rich but well beyond his prime in life, was captivated by Eurydice's beauty and wanted to possess her for a trophy. When the nymph fled from him, she fell to her death from a cliff. Others say she was gathering flowers when the fated event happened: she was bitten by a poisonous snake and died within a minute. In ancient Greece, death was understood to be the loss of vital force and the transference of the image of the person, called "a shade," into the Underworld, the realm of Hades, Lord of Death.
So, whatever caused her demise, Eurydice became a shade in the Underworld.
Never before having known such passion for a single woman, Orpheus was not prepared for such a loss. It shook him like an earthquake and threw his heart into total anguish. His mind faltered; he verged on suicide and madness. After a month of wracking grief, Orpheus made a daring choice. He decided to use his shamanic gift—the ability to move back and forth between different worlds—to venture into the Underworld and bring Eurydice back with him to the realm of the living. This would be a shamanic test that no hero before him had ever
So, Orpheus descended into Hades and faced ordeals that challenged his powers to their limit. He charmed Cerberus, the monstrous three-headed dog who guards the gate of the palace of Hades, by playing a strain from his lyre. Then he entered the palace, a living man in the realm of the shades. He was greeted by Hades, the king of the Underworld, and his abducted bride, Persephone, Queen of the Night. Eurydice was there somewhere, living as a human spectre among the dark immortals of the Hadean realm.
Hades, the Lord of the Dead, welcomed Orpheus into the main hall of his vast palace in the Underworld. He was a huge, lumbering man with a soft manner. Wild tresses of chestnut red hair in knotty coils framed his ruddy face. His dreamy brown eyes had yellowish rims. The king was polite and congenial with Orpheus. He confessed amazement that the shaman had overcome the trials required for a mortal to pass alive into the zone of death. After some formalities typical of court life everywhere, the moment came for Hades to present Orpheus with the object of his quest: the shade of his woman, Eurydice. With a casual snap of his fingers, Hades produced the wraith. The shaman gasped at the vapid insubstantiality of her form. She was not the flesh-and-blood woman Orpheus had known, far from it, but she would become so again once she set foot upon the living earth.
Table Talk in Hades
At a regal dinner, Orpheus sat at the center of a long banquet table loaded with food and drink. Hades sat opposite to him, to the left, and Persephone to the right, making a formal triangle with the shaman at the peak. Eurydice sat on Orpheus' left at the end of the table, somewhat removed. She had a timid and expectant air. Opposite her at the other end of the table sat the hero Herakles, who had been invited by Persephone for the occasion. He was clad only in a lion skin and leather tunic. His body seemed to radiate a raw, tawny aura, like the roar of a lion made visible. But for all his furious allure, Herakles was quiet and reserved. He only spoke with consent from Persephone, signaled by a nod of her regal head.
As they feasted and drank, Hades explained to Orpheus the favor he would grant by allowing Eurydice to be restored to life. It was a huge exception, never before granted to anyone. Eurydice sat listening, but did not speak, nor did she touch the sumptuous fare spread on the table. From time to time her eyes caught Orpheus' gaze and held it. It seemed that only her eyes were alive, yet they could not express feeling as living eyes do. They shone with a flat, fluctuating glitter, like hard light glinting on flakes of ice.
"In my kingdom, your woman is only a shade," Hades explained. "A wraith, a mortal spectre of the ordinary kind, lifeless as a wooden doll. In life she earned no heroic stature, as Herakles did. Here in the world below she can move in a normal way, and she can listen to what others say. But only heroes like Herakles retain the power of the human voice in my realm. I allow this so that the departed heroes can be consulted by the living from time to time, to comfort and guide those in the world above." He paused, took a long drink of wine, and glanced thoughtfully at Eurydice. "Your woman cannot speak, for a shade has no human voice. She has no weight either, so her footstep makes no sound."
The king of the Underworld turned his gaze aside at Persephone, who was listening intently to his words. Orpheus caught a glint of complicity in the eye of the ravishing bride of Hades, but he could not detect its meaning. He was close enough to Persephone to hear her breathing in a slow, heavy way that reminded him of a laboring ox. Her breath was a flux of hot and cold, alternating currents. Persephone wore an amber-colored silk tunic decorated with serpents sliding among flowers, and Orpheus fancied that he saw the serpents moving. Her body was laden with silver rings and stone amulets and bracelets of jasper, turquoise, and nacre. Orpheus realized that in that vast hall and the entire realm around it, only he and Persephone were breathing.
The shaman sipped discretely at his wine and turned his attention again to Hades, who resumed his explanation.
"No one has has ever received such a concession from the Lord of the Dead," Hades announced in a solemn tone. He stressed that Orpheus had one chance and one only to complete his unique mission. Eurydice could return to the world above by following the shaman up the long, winding, pitch-black tunnel that ends at a narrow grotto opening onto a flowery field. But if Orpheus were to look back at her, even with a brief glance, he would lose Eurydice forever. The shaman immediately understood and accepted this condition. He turned to the shade of Eurydice and caught her attention with an assenting nod. The poignant expression around her flat, glittering eyes told him that she, too, understood the explicit terms of their return to the land of the living.
As they drank the after-dinner liquor flavored with opium, conversation seemed to be drawing to a close. But suddenly Persephone gestured to Orpheus with a hand laden with silver and opal rings and cowrie-bracelets. In that vast hall, the sound of the tiny shells clicking together echoed like the crash of the ocean on the far shores of the world above.
"I also would honor the brave shaman who so loves a woman, exclusive of all others, that he ventured alive into Hades to recover her," Persephone announced in a husky voice. "My king has told you that mortal shades who lack heroic status do not speak in this realm. Eurydice is mute, yes, but not merely because she does not compare to Herakles, and so does not merit the privilege of human expression after death. In death heroes may still communicate with the living, but no ordinary shade can do the like, for I will not allow it."
Persephone turned to Hades and invited his dreamy brown eyes to meet her own. "Indeed, not only do I not allow it," Persephone added, "I do more." Hades nodded his thick-lidded eyes in silent assent. Orpheus thought he detected the hint of an ironic smile on the lips of the Lord of the Dead.
"When I last saw the world above," Persephone continued in a pensive tone, "I was picking flowers in a glorious meadow. Doing exactly as Eurydice when she was bitten by a venomous serpent. But I did not die—do you understand that, Orpheus? I was abducted alive into this nether realm of lifelessness. Although I am the daughter of a goddess, Demeter, and thus of fully divine status myself, I retain the human form that I enjoyed at the moment of my abduction—that is, the mortal form. Can you imagine what it is to be a mortal confined in the land of the dead without having died?" She paused to let Orpheus consider the question. He was totally stunned. True, he was a mortal breathing in the zone of death, but he was not confined to remain there most of the year, as Persephone was. His sojourn in Hades was but a short-term tour.
The Queen of the Night smiled wistfully at his astonishment. "I was so happy on that day, so pleased just to be a mortal woman, free and young, a maiden on her own, gathering flowers at her leisure. In the upper world I was called Kora because of my dappled complexion. It was said that I emitted a blush of happiness as bright as coral in the sea. But my happiness ended abruptly at the moment of abduction. You see that my complexion has also changed in the world below. Even in my breathing, I must adapt to this lifeless zone."
Peering closely at Persephone's shoulders and arms, Orpheus noticed that her skin seemed to be coated with a dull sheen of dark oil. For an instant he saw the skin beneath the oil turn a mottled pink. But the effect faded as quickly as it appeared, and Persephone's entire body assumed the color of woodsmoke drifting across the disk of the full moon.
"At first it was pure agony for me to be here," Persephone told him, her voice now no more than a deep whisper. "I so missed the loveliness of living things, the exquisite formality of nature and the play of forms, of plants and flowers, insects, serpents, and birds. I missed the ferocity and playfulness of all kinds of animals—and yes, of humans, too. Not to mention the clouds and the colors of the sky by day, the myriad stars in revolving patterns by night, the smell and rhythm of the sea. And the butterflies, alas... Memories of such lost beauties tormented me continually after my abduction into this realm." She fell silent and drank somberly from a slender goblet of horn. By her side, Hades seemed sunken in deep contemplation, reflecting on her words.
"Memories can be suppressed, of course. Humans can do that, and I, like you, Orpheus, am fully human." Persephone shot him a pointed glance. "But even without the memories, I could not bear to hear a word about the beauties of the world above. I could not bear to be reminded of what I had lost. So great was my grief that I forbade any of the shades wandering in this realm to speak, lest they make mention of earthly pleasure and reawaken my pain. I allow no word of the happiness that arises in the world above to be said here, or any word at all, any report or allusion. But disallowance is not enough, so strong is the human desire for expression: I myself deprive all human shades of the power of speech, I annihilate their voices, making exception only for heroes like Herakles," she said, nodding in the direction of the lion shaman. "I do so in respect of my king's wish that the realm of the dead be a source of comfort and guidance for the living."
The Queen of the Night fixed her sultry, dark-green eyes on Orpheus with a penetrating look that made the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand up and tingle. "So it is that in this world I am called Persephone, she who destroys the voice."
For a moment the banquet hall was plunged into blood-chilling silence. The flames leaping from the torches on the wall looked suddenly immobile, like cones of yellow beeswax. Eurydice shivered visibly and dropped her face into her hands. If she had been capable of breathing, she would have sobbed in fear, but she was merely choked and silent. Orpheus felt the spellbinding power of death as never before. He knew it would take all that remained of his prowess, patience, and shamanic skill to lead his woman's shade up the hazardous passageway to life. He was intensely eager now to begin that return journey.
The Queen's Favor
Persephone smiled graciously, sensing the shaman's urgency. Pressing the tip of her tongue to her lower lip, she laid her jewel-laden hand casually on the wrist of Hades. "The king of the Underworld has granted you a rare favor, Orpheus, a unique gift never offered to anyone else. It is fitting that the queen of the Underworld do the same." Her smile was seductive, full of infernal attraction, but also somehow gentle and reassuring. Orpheus felt himself trembling all over as he listened for what she would say next.
"As my gift to you, brave shaman and singer of praise, I grant your woman a voice so that she may call to you as she follows you up the pitch-dark tunnel of return. Because she is a shade and has no footfall, you will not hear her steps. Because she has no breath in her form, you will not hear a wisp of breathing, though she be close behind you. She knows that you must not look back for her, but now she can call ahead. To ask you to wait, or to give her directions, if needed. With the voice I grant her, Eurydice will be able to reassure you that all is well, that she is safe and sound, proceeding close behind you."
With this declaration, Persephone placed her left elbow firmly on the table and positioned her forearm upright with the palm of her hand facing upward and open, flat. With an elegant turn of her wrist, she pointed her fingers down the long table toward Eurydice. Then she leaned forward, the braided strands of her jet-black hair pendant over the table, and blew once firmly and loudly upon her open palm. Orpheus felt a keen shiver in the air, like a strong clear note struck on his lyre. He looked immediately to his left. Eurydice was suddenly jolted and then transfixed, sitting bolt upright with her arms pinned to her sides. She felt a soft, strong glow ripple in her throat, like the flare of a ruby warmed by the sweep of a blazing torch. Then she sensed a rustling sensation beneath her chin, making her think of the wings of a swallow criss-crossing to its sides as it tucks down into its nest. Delivered on the mortal breath of the queen of the Underworld, the power of speech entered her body.
So thrilled was Eurydice to regain her voice that she almost exclaimed aloud, but Persephone warned her with a sharp gesture: the infernal bride put her index finger to her lacquered lips. "Only in the passageway," she said. And turning to Orpheus, she added the calm command, ""Now, you two, begin your return to the land of the living."
Orpheus leads Eurydice up the winding tunnel from Hades toward the realm of the living. It is a long way, hard and precarious, from the dead center of the earth to the hidden grotto that opens on a sunlit meadow. The passageway is narrow and uneven, with gaping holes that plunge away to right and left. The tunnel is cold as ice and pitch dark.
After hours of cautious treading, they enter the last stage of the return, with the passageway ascending steeply toward the threshold of the upper world. Orpheus is suddenly jubilant, confident that his high-risk venture into Hades will end in success. Soon he will have his woman with him, living by his side, the woman he desires to the exclusion of all others, the only woman he has ever so desired. He will learn to know her in body and soul, and use his lyrical powers to mirror her beauty back to her. He will show her how to dance between worlds, divine the stars, and detect hidden riches, and they will gather many treasures together. They will love each other devotedly and celerate rituals of sexual delight. Her love for him will make Eurydice powerful in her beauty, rich in humanity, and replete in her womanhood.
All this can happen for this fated couple, all this is now about to happen. The upper world beckons.
Orpheus is determined to observe the condition set down by the lord of the Underworld: not to look back. He trusts completely that Eurydice will follow him every step of the way. Besides, with the gift of speech she received from Persephone, she can warn him if anything goes amiss, should she slip or falter on the precipitious track, or lose her sense of direction in the pitch blackness. And if all goes well, she can reassure him that she is just one step behind him.
The passageway ascends steeply and meanders treacherously, dipping here and there in unexpected ways. Orpheus must avoid the chasms that yawn beyond unseen gaps on either side of the narrow passage. Behind him, Eurydice is a fluttering gray shadow, faintly aglow. Her wispy form quivers uncertainly with every step. In the pitch blackness, Orpheus concentrates intently on the whistling sound of the air current that surges through the defile. Fluctuations in the sound tell him how the path veers right or left and where treacherous gaps are located. Soon they are close to the entrance of the grotto. He catches the glint of sunlight bouncing off flecks of mica embedded in the cold rock surrounding them.
The Voice of a Shade
Back in the dining hall of Hades, Heracles stands and bows, dismissing himself politely. He goes down a corridor to the chamber of oracles to await invocation from those in the world above. Hades and Persephone are alone. They sit like statues, more still and silent than death itself. Their heads are tilted at the same angle, as if they are listening in unison for something. Hades places his hand on Persephone's shoulder to steady her, for he knows that the power of her hearing goes deeper than his. It runs like a green-golden vein into the darkest ore of the Underworld, and even attains the limits of that world. After a long moment, the ravishing bride again places her elbow on the table, this time the right one. She positions her hand straight up, fingers vertical with the palm slightly cupped in a gesture of readiness, as if poised to snatch a passing butterfly out of the air.
Orpheus now sees the narrow slit of the grotto entrance, and beyond it, a spring meadow rampant with flowers. Remembering that Eurydice, though still a shade, can speak, he calls over his shoulder to her. "Are you there, my woman?" he asks, keeping his gaze straight ahead on the narrow sliver of light, without turning his head.
"Yes my love, I am here, I am safe, and I will soon be a living woman embraced in your arms," Eurydice responds, calling ahead out of the total blackness. There is a light, cheerful ring in her voice.
But Orpheus does not hear a word. In the unexpected silence, his footstep falters. He hesitates and listens intently. But to no avail, for the voice of a shade, devitalized and departed, is caught on the currents that surge in that long, pitch-black defile. Reverse currents of subtle, chilling certitude draw all lives physically into death and dissolution in the depths of the earth. And these same currents draw sound as well. When Eurydice calls out to Orpheus, the sound of her words is pulled back on the wind in the passageway like a leaf sucked into a hollow reed. Pulled back all the way to the depths of Hades where the sound of her voice will be lost forever, dissipating in the unending lifeless silence of that realm.
Persephone sits stock-still in the dining hall, waiting and listening. She opens here eyes wide, as if in shock. The light of her look breaks into fluid streaks like jade seen under running water. Hades gazes lovingly at her long braids and striking profile, his hand still firmly on her shoulder. As she begins to tremble, his hand steadies her entire body.
Suddenly, the words Eurydice called out to Orpheus surge on a frigid current into the banquet hall. Persephone snatches the sound into her open palm and shuts her fingers on it tightly. Now the Queen of the Night closes her heavy-lidded eyes and takes a long, deep breath. Her eyelids quiver as she reaches down into the depths of her mortal body for the innermost recess of her pain. Then, when she feels the loss of all the beauties of the living world pierce her tummy like a ice-chilled dagger, she sheds one tear for all she misses, and for all the anguish it brings her, and leaning forward, kisses the back of her hand and thrusts it open. Her arm, still held vertically, quivers like the string of a bow after the arrow is shot from it.
The sound of Eurydice's voice rebounds from Persephone's palm and surges back up the pitch-black passageway leading to daylight and life.
Orpheus stands frozen in his tracks, puzzled, thinking that something has gone wrong. Eurydice has not responded to his call. By now he sees a flowering field through the slender opening of the grotto. He can even smell the aroma of the flowers, a mix of gorse and narcissus, for the scent comes to him on the strong backdraft into the tunnel. They are so close to the end of their perilous journey, but Orpheus dares not take a single step into the world of the living unless he is sure, absolutely sure, that Eurydice is with him. She must be there, ready to take the first step into their new life only a second after he does.
Yet his woman does not reply, and Orpheus is disoriented. How can it be, this unanswering void behind him?
Now, in absence of response, her presence goes astray. The shaman's mind begins to race madly. He thinks, My woman must be in danger or difficulty - something makes her afraid to speak - some fear or doubt holds back her words. Feeling the backdraft into the tunnel grow stronger at the entrance, Orpheus braces himself. Concentrating the last of his strength, he puts one foot through the narrow verge of the grotto into the bright meadow, the realm of the living. He is poised to make the final step of return, but the agony he feels for lack of response from his woman overrides his patience. The fear of losing her compels Orpheus to look back. He turns aside just enough to reach around with his arm, teetering precariously on his feet. He senses a grayish form hovering on the current that rushes down the passageway. He gropes blindly in the blackness with his hand, trying to pull Eurydice safely into his arms. But when he turns a little more, just far enough to catch a fleeting glimpse of her shade, it dissolves before his eyes.
A sudden surge out of the tunnel throws the shaman with limbs awry onto the ground. The instant he emerges from that infernal blackness, Orpheus collapses, and the fragrant, sunlit world goes black. The force that throws him to earth and knocks him unconscious also shattered Eurydice's shade, the moment he looked back and tried to reach it. In the same instant, the words she had called out to him come back her, surging up the passageway. Her words return with the soft impact of a kiss blown through the air. The sound of her own voice pours into her body and fills it with life and feeling, the rhythm of coursing blood, the dance of breath and glance, the sweet pitch of realized emotion, vivacity and tone. Her own voice lifts her with the easy movement of a leaping deer, and she skips through the narrow entrance of the grotto. She enters the warm sunlight meadow, embodied and breathing, a once-mute phantom restored to life.
Orpheus feels a nudge at his ribs awaken him and finds himself bedded in a patch of flowers with Eurydice in his arms, warm and alive, gazing blissfully and gratefully into his eyes.
jll: Wednesday June 11, 2008. Oudenaken, Belgium.